When Differences Make the Difference: Stockholm visits Portland

submitted by Sindre Fredsvik, First Stop Student Ambassador

What can two leading cities in sustainability potentially learn from each other? How transferable are successful practices from European cities to the American context and vice versa?

Bob Packard, ZGF (left) with Pers Ankersjö, Stockholm Vice-Mayor for the Environment
While these questions are highly pertinent and should be asked, perhaps the more valuable lessons come from examining their differences. What became apparent during recent conversations between Stockholm’s leaders and Portland’s experts are the differences in each city’s commitments to sustainability as well as the forces behind them.

With an emphasis on exchange of ideas and productive conversation, Stockholm Vice-Mayor for the Environment Pers Ankersjö and delegation toured Portland by foot, streetcar and light-rail, exploring what makes it unique in the American context. They visited a variety of locations pertinent to sustainable practices: cutting-edge green design by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects (ZGF) at Twelve|West; transit-oriented development in the Pearl District; affordable housing at the Bud Clarke Commons; and brownfield redevelopment at South Waterfront. Presenters included Susan Anderson (Director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability), Rob Bennett (Executive Director at the Portland Sustainability Institute), Jillian Detweiler (Senior Land Development Planner at TriMet) and Dennis Wilde, Principal at Gerding Edlen Development Inc..

Like Portland 50 years ago, the City of Stockholm, Sweden, was suffered from the negative impacts of industrialization and the rise of the automobile. Today, the EU’s first ever “Green Capital,” Stockholm, is known internationally for its sustainability efforts, evident in projects like Hammarby Sjöstad, a massive inner-city urban redevelopment project emphasizing smart growth and green building principles. Quickly growing its population of approximately 850,000 (2.1M in the metro area), Stockholm expects reach 1M residents by 2030. In large part, the city of Stockholm is accommodating this growth while becoming “world class city” by mandating green policies. Stockholm’s leaders understand they cannot rest on their laurels; they must continue to innovate to realize the city their citizens have envisioned.

Sustainability Portland-style is less pragmatic and more aspirational; here we opt to create a more livable environment for ourselves, protecting natural habitat and promoting renewable energy use. In Portland, “sustainability” is viewed by many as desirable but optional, an alternative path, and to some extent an experiment.

This contrasts rather significantly with how the Director of Environment and Health of the City of Stockholm, Gunnar Söderholm described Stockholm’s approach, which he sees emerging in large part from necessity: “While Stockholmers are in general rather sustainable, it is not inherently by choice or belief, but rather as a necessity due to high electricity and utility prices, as well as the high costs of having a car, leading people to make choices that happen to be sustainable.” In turn, these issues shape policy and action in Stockholm by generating innovative and sustainable practices that make sense from both and an economic and social viewpoint. This is evident in their district heating systems, congestion pricing policies, extensive public transportation networks, and waste-to-energy incineration systems.

With necessity as a driving force, Stockholm has managed to significantly reduce its ecological footprint and enhanced livability for its residents. In Stockholm, necessity is truly the mother of invention. Should Portland follow suit, then—raising energy prices and implementing congestion pricing? Or is its aspirational approach to sustainability sufficient? The question emerging from the Stockholm visit is essentially this: should Portland mandate its citizens become sustainable or will gentle motivation remain the answer?

Dennis Wilde, Gerding Edlen tours Portland's Pearl District with Stockholm delegation

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